I am very glad to see all of the stories emerge about #whyistayed and #whyileft in the wake of the Janay and Ray Rice incident. Domestic violence is a complicated problem and "why didn't she leave" does not even scratch the surface. Any movement toward being less victim blaming is good and much needed.
However, there are many important realities about domestic violence that are still being missed in the recent media coverage. Huffington Post's recent series of stories on Why I Stayed is a very good example about what is wrong with the media coverage about domestic violence and how the same stereotypes are still dominating the conversation. Here's a brief rundown of some of the biggest misconceptions and stereotypes:
1) Victimized women look like other women.
Victimized women are, for one thing, flesh-toned. They come in the whole rainbow of flesh tones from fairest beige to darkest brown. They can also wear make-up if they want to. Why use blurry, black-and-white, almost x-ray type photos to portray victims? It would be better if we showed them going to work, taking care of their kids, and doing the other everyday things that they do and we all do. These women are all ones who got out of their relationship (not exactly #whyistayed) and so why not show them smiling?
2) The media focuses on extreme stories, not typical ones.
There are warnings all across the pages of recent coverage about graphic descriptions of violence. This does NOT represent most domestic violence. Data from the CDC and many other sources consistently shows that most domestic violence is limited to one or two incidents that do not lead to injury. Pushing, grabbing, and slapping are the most commonly reported items. These are still serious incidents not to be taken lightly. Focusing on the most extreme cases colors what we think are reasonable responses. It also can make it harder for other people to seek help because they do not think domestic violence services are for them if they have not been seriously beaten.
3) Most domestic violence is not a never-ending and worsening cycle of abuse.
There is almost no data in support of the so-called "cycle of violence" and what does exists is 30 years old and comes from a very different era. Newer data tell a different story. It is best to think of domestic violence like other crimes. One way that domestic violence is like other crime is that almost all of the perpetrators are adolescents and young adults. Most perpetrators stop offending by the time they are in their 30s or certainly their 40s, although there are a few who continue a life of crime even into old age. Research on domestic violence shows this same pattern. This is another misconception that results from focusing on the most horrific and extreme cases.
4) Treatment can help.
I find it so ironic that even psychologists and other social services professionals talk about domestic violence as if it is an incurable disease. Aside from the fact, as already mentioned, that it is not an incurable disease, it is a mystery why we treat it differently from addiction, depression, or PTSD. There are many other very difficult life problems that we believe can get better. Although treatment does not work for everyone—much like Alcoholics Anonymous does not help everyone get sober—it does work for some. There is hope. Hope is not a bad thing.
5) There are other stories to tell.
Here are a few quotes from women who tell a different story about #whyistayed from my work:
“He was drunk. I hid the car keys and wouldn’t give them to him. Therefore, he shoved me around, then hit me with his fist. Then I bit him and he stopped and took the keys and left….The above instances [description of fight was earlier in the study] happened in the first 6 or 7 years of my marriage [she estimated a total of 6 to 10 incidents with the one described here being the worst]. I have now been married 15 years, the abuse is gone, and I feel closer to my husband than I did when we were first married.”
“One light slap because he thought I was hysterical and “that’s what they do on TV.” Married less than 6 months. It was 25 years ago. I was in school, lots of pressure, probably crying a lot. All in all our relationship has been pretty even keel.”
“I threw his dinner plate on [the] floor. He broke my radio. This was very early in marriage, we were having adjustment problems….Married 20 years, both of us different in many ways. Mutual respect for each other even though not as close as we used to be.”
“This [arguing, yelling, 1 slap] was a one-time incident; never occurred again; both remorseful; both of us shared some blame.” [Woman in 15-year long relationship]
“We tend to have “heated verbal disagreements” and in 10 years only one incidence of a violent argument with some pushing (I was pushed).”
“[Husband] hit wall, threw chair. I feel that we have grown a lot over the years, he is very different from 7 years ago.”
(quoted from Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp 24-25).
We can do better. We can put aside the stereotypes and really listen. We have to do better if we truly want to help those who have been victimized by ones they love.
© 2014 Sherry Hamby
Dr. Hamby 's most recent book is Battered Women's Protective Strategies: Stronger Than You Know (Oxford University Press, 2014). To learn more about exploring options with people who have experienced domestic violence, visit http://thevigor.org. For other strengths-based approaches to resilience and overcoming violence and other adversity, visit http://lifepathsresearch.org.